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Education Science

Harvard Pres Says Females Naturally Bad at Math 1746

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the very-presidential-sir dept.
Man_Holmes writes "Harvard president says that women lack natural ability in math and science and this explains why fewer women succeed in math and science. Lawrence H. Summers later said that he was discussing hypotheses based on scholarly work and that it did not necessarily represent his private views."
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Harvard Pres Says Females Naturally Bad at Math

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  • by not_a_product_id (604278) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:08AM (#11394405) Journal
    Not saying the guy's right but a lot of the comments I've heard seem to be based on this being automatically sexist as opposed to people showing good studies that demonstrate the this isn't at all correct.

    More of a "You can't say that." than "That isn't correct.

    • Must.....Control......Fist of Death.........
    • by Gyorg_Lavode (520114) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:19AM (#11394514)
      The guy was being provacative but he was not being derogatory. He knew exactly what he said and what it would cause but he did not insult women's ability to achieve the highest levels of achademics.

      I agree that people think first "You can't say something like that?!" before ever considering "That can't be correct can it?"

    • substantiation (Score:5, Insightful)

      by brlewis (214632) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:20AM (#11394524) Homepage
      From the article, this guy says:
      "It's possible I made some reference to innate differences," he said. He said people "would prefer to believe" that the differences in performance between the sexes are due to social factors, "but these are things that need to be studied."
      And one of his critics:
      "Here was this economist lecturing pompously (to) this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day," said Denton, the outgoing dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington.

      Now, who's substantiating his comments and who isn't?

      • Re:substantiation (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Phleg (523632) <stephen&touset,org> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:40AM (#11394762)

        Now, who's substantiating his comments and who isn't?

        To be fair, just because she thinks the hypothesis was refuted doesn't make it wrong. Especially knowing how sensitive the topic about differences between genders is, a lot of people go out of their way to find the results they're looknig for, and are completely unwilling to consider anything else.

        While withholding my opinion about the accuracy of his statements, I do think it's an issue that still needs to be examined. For her to categorically reject the notion while there is still much ambiguity on the subjct, I believe she was acting emotionally rather than logically.

      • Re:substantiation (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ragnar (3268) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:52AM (#11394940) Homepage
        I read the article this morning. When I came to the second quote (...things we had refuted in the first half of the day) it just read to me like he was being criticized for not being part of the group-think.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:21AM (#11394530)
      There are historical reasons that people see such comments as "automatically sexist".

      "Well, women have this wonderful nurturing instinct, but of course they're not so good at things outside the home, like voting or schoolwork, and certainly the hard sciences of engineering and math would never appeal to them."
      compare with
      "Let's face it - black people are just better than us at basketball. Of course, they're not very smart, but that's not their fault!"

      As recently as 45 years ago it was the social norm in America that middle-class women did not express an opinion to their husbands. (Of course they had husbands. And good ones, too! They didn't go to college for nothing.)

      It's easy to lose this perspective in more recent times, but one must remember what these people have gone through to get where they are, and one must wonder whether the overt tones of bigotry have been eliminated or have just become more subtle. The indignation people express often seems like overreaction; but not everyone who has an opinion has an irrational foundation.

      Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who walked out midway through Dr Summers's remarks, said: "This kind of bias makes me physically ill. Let's not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile."

      During Dr Summers's presidency, the proportion of tenured jobs offered to women has fallen from 36 per cent to 13 per cent. Last year, only four of 32 tenured job openings were offered to women.


      ("Mommy truck" and "Daddy truck" hereby qualifies as the funniest excuse for scientific proof ever, by the way.)
      • by Short Circuit (52384) * <mikemol@gmail.com> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:35AM (#11394706) Homepage Journal
        "Let's not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile."

        Well, a long time ago, driving an automobile required a certain physical strength a lot of women didn't have. Starting the engine required using a crank, for one. That's the big one I'm not even sure I have the strength for. Manual steering was another hurdle.

        Of course, things like electric starters and power steering have made driving a much less physical exercise. Biometric driver authentication is peeking is head out now, which means no more wrist-wrenching to start the car. And drive-by-wire is only a few years away. Pretty soon, the toughest part of driving will be opening the door.
        • by Filmwatcher888 (595369) <filmwatcher888NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:23AM (#11395392) Journal
          You have _got_ to be kidding

          Hand Cranks stopped being used in the 1930's [about.com]. Even then, they were no more difficult than a waterwell's crank that women have been using for centuries.

          Even though maunal steering only went away in the last 20 years, it only becomes an issue if you are trying to move a car that isn't in motion. Some very weak people might had a hard time parallel parking, but not everyday driving and stopping.

        • by Feanturi (99866) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:57AM (#11395905)
          Spatial reasoning plays a role in driving as well, another attribute that tends to be higher among men. I have known women that drive well, even 18-wheelers and such, so they do exist. But I have also known women too terrified of the oncoming traffic and doubting their ability to reconcile all that movement properly. I have never met a man who is concerned about being able to track all the traffic. Driving may stress them out, but I have not seen them refuse to learn to drive because it's too scary. My last girlfriend had it running in her whole family. She said, "The women in my family simply do not drive, it's just too freaky." The girlfriend before her had caused at least three people to swear that they would never attempt to teach her to drive ever again. I've yet to meet a man like this. My sister loves to drive, but has also managed to run into something with EVERY vehicle she has ever been in control of, she can't even keep an off-road vehicle out of the trees.
      • by deanj (519759) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:38AM (#11394729)

        Last year, only four of 32 tenured job openings were offered to women.


        And I bet none of them were conservatives; so much for diversity. ...Anyway, that's neither here nor there. The reason that nearly no women probably went for the jobs in the first place is because of this guy. Word about people like this gets around pretty quickly (just think of the bozos at your company that are like this, if you're unfortunate enough to have one). This sort of thing happens a lot more in academia (well, and in the working world too), than people like to admit. It's not just guys that do it either. The are plenty of women with chips on their shoulders when it comes to hiring men too.

        Maybe one day we'll end up with a system that treats everyone with some respect, and this sort of crapola won't happen. Until people like this are gone, and we don't have systems in place that promote people just because of whatever class they happen to fall into, it's not going to happen. It's just going to continue.
        • by FatherOfONe (515801) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:13AM (#11395254)
          First I want to state that I always beleive in hiring the best person for the job no matter what. I hope that we can agree on that statement. If so then we both agree that afirmative action/quotas are bad.

          Now on to my main point.
          I will have you look at most of the universities in your area. In those look who is in the top level computer science classes. What do you see? Almost all men. By almost I mean it will be around 90-95% men and a larg portion being white men. So looking at that statistic shouldn't most I.T. jobs be filled with 90-95% men? Now go in to most fortune 100 companies and look at their I.T. department. What percentage of that department is men? I think you will be shocked to see that a very large percentage are women (greater than 35%, and in a lot of cases greater than 50%). Now look at all the new hires that have taken place in the last 3 years in those companies. How many of those are white males?

          It is my belief that most fortune 500 companies want to appear like they care about "diversity" but when it comes down to it they will put those hires in departments they don't think much about (I.T.). So then I.T. gets stuck with a bunch of underqualified people and then people start to say that their I.T. department suck and they need to outsouce it. Yet it is their fault for sticking underqaulfied people in there to begin with. I have yet to see any sales department be forced to take "underqualified" people. I have yet to see a marketing department take underqualified people. I have yet to see any scientific department be forced to take on lesser quality people.... yet I.T. gets it all the time.

          Lastly I want to say again that all this can go away if companies start to hire the best person for the job. The only good news is that if they don't their competitors might :-) Also we do agree that word about people that do things like this gets around.... It is unfortunate that by trying to spread "diversity" they are promoting raceism.

      • by AviLazar (741826) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:45AM (#11394832) Journal
        One thing I have noticed over the years, is that when anyone says something "controversial" people get in an uproar. Why is it so hard to believe that one gender is better at something then another gender?

        I still know women, until this day, who say that women are equal with men in every possible way, both mentally and physically. Last I noticed - the average woman is not as strong as the average man, the strongest woman is not as strong as the strongest man. The same thing goes for a lot of physical attributes. People always get upset when we talk about it but its true.

        So why isn't possible that women are not as proficient in the math's and sciences as men? Maybe this is a state of social order - though more so about 45 years ago. But there is always the potential that our minds work differently enough (They do in so many other aspects) that woman are less capable then men in math and science, while men are less capable in say art and literature?

        I by no means am claiming to be an expert on who has more proficiency in a topic - but from my major in college I do know there are substantial differences between the way men and women think, and act.
      • by LWATCDR (28044) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:56AM (#11394999) Homepage Journal
        The problem is that people still say that there are differences between men and women. How many feminist think that most of the worlds problems are because men are running things? That men are more violent than women? Yet lots of people would not say that is sexist. It seems like it is okay to say anything negative about men, white people, Christians, or US citizens.

        The problem is that in general you can not make a blanket statement about the genders. I will bet that there are Women that are extremely good at math and science. Judging from the freaking grammar Nazis that pop up on here, some males are good at grammar and spelling. It is very possible that there are difference between the genders. We know that there are physical differences. Women tend to have higher endurance and higher pain tolerance. Men tend to have greater upper body strength. Is it so hard to say that maybe males generally are better at making quick decisions and spacial relationships i.e. skills that increase your chances at hunting. While women are better at planning and long term goals i.e. things that increase your chances when gathering and taking care of children? I mean isn't it logical that women would tend to be better at taking care of children since they are the only ones that can feed a baby? I think part of this negative feeling is from the old "separate but equal days". We seem to have a problem with the concept of equal but different.

        Just because most of your gender tends to have talents one field does not mean that you can not excel at a different one.

        We need to deal with groups of individuals and not individual groups.
    • by Shivetya (243324) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:23AM (#11394561) Homepage Journal
      The current doctrine that is present in most schools and society will not allow a view to exist even if it could be backed with fact.

      We are too concerned with feelings compared to facts. We are willing to ingore an obvious issue simply because it might offend someone.

      Fortunately this issue is relatively harmless but other issues which offend people based on the conclusions of studies are being hushed all in the name of sensitivity and political correctness.

      • Because history is littered with biggots who use "science" as a backing for discrimination?

        I mean it's just as easy to point out all the violence in the world, note that it's mostly male and say "they're not worthy of education because of what they'll do with it".

        But a view like that would immediately become suspect because not all males are violent homicidal "freedom givers".

        I've met quite a few ditsy stupid females in my life time. I've also met quite a few power-tripping idiot males [oh, wait they have an MBA!!!]. I've met some stupid black people and I've met some ignorant chinese people.

        So what?

        I've also met some very intelligent females who did well in courses like Calculus and Algebra. I've met generous and kind males. I've met some very welcoming black folk and I've met a few chinese that I get along with just fine.

        All this "president" did was show that even the supposedly well enlightened can be biggots.

        I mean I'm sure there are physical conditions that pre-disposes someone to be good at math/science. I just don't think they're gender specific. I think more than anything social pressure is the culprit for any "lacking in numbers" the females might have. I also think they bring it on themselves.

        From what I saw while at college, if you come to class with makeup on I can't help but not take you seriously. Sorry, thems the breaks. And no guy and their biggoted ways made them dress in tight shirts, wear makeup and drop the math courses. They did that because it was the popular thing todo.

        But to suggest that it's gender specific is really lame and very 1950s'ish.

        Tom
        • by dubious9 (580994) * on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:24AM (#11395408) Journal
          I mean I'm sure there are physical conditions that pre-disposes someone to be good at math/science.

          Gender is a phyisical condition.

          I just don't think they're gender specific. I think more than anything social pressure is the culprit for any "lacking in numbers" the females might have.

          Prove it. What you've said is an unsubstantiated hypothesis and will not hold up in scientific circles. What happens if your studies *do* show an innate difference? Does that automatically make you sexist?

          But to suggest that it's gender specific is really lame and very 1950s'ish.

          Why? There are *many* differences between men and women. And so what? It doesn't mean that women can't do math, it just says that they are not genetically apt to be good at it because of their gender.

          This negative disposition is probably small and can be offset by other genetic factors. It's not suggesting women can't be good at math, but another attempt to help explain why the math/science field isn't 50/50. If the facts are there but you ignore them because it's not popular, who wins? Surely not science, and not women.
        • by fitten (521191) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:35AM (#11395554)
          Well... there *are* known propensity for differences based on gender. Some of which are:

          - Muscular strength (advantage males)
          - Dexterity (advantage females)
          - Constitution (advantage females)
          - Spatial analysis (advantage males)
          - Multitasking (advantage females)
          - Lifespan (advantage females)

          These are all measurable.

          Somehow, though, when you venture into mental measures, no one wants to touch that with a 10-foot pole because it might offend someone. I'd have no problem if someone told me that I, as a male, has the propensity to be stupid in economics. So what, it doesn't take anything away from me (I know I'm already stupid in economics). Even if someone told me that, as a male, I had the propensity to be stupid in something that I'm actually good at. That's the bit about statistics... You can't use a single example and assume that it is the norm, no matter which side of the statistic it falls on (the sample size is too small).

          Just like on /. there is a strong belief that someone shouldn't get a college degree because Joe, over here, didn't get a college degree and he is super successful. The *norm* is that persons with college degrees make more money than persons without college degrees. Joe is an exception to the norm. It's the 'I have a dog. My dog is brown. Therefore, all dogs are brown.' logical fallacy.

          I wouldn't be surprised (or offended) if some group actually did prove that women have the propensity to be 'smarter' at some things than men and men 'smarter' than women at other things. Men and women aren't the same no matter how hard you try to make them the same. We can have the same rights, the same ambitions, the same ideals, but there is nothing wrong with being different and/or having the propensity to be more enabled to do one thing or another than the opposite gender.

          If, in fact, someone shows measureable differences between genders at some things, my advice would be do embrace the differences instead of denying them. Explore yourself to see if you follow the norm or are an exception.
          Such research could be used as a good starting place for you to explore yourself to see where your own strong areas are and exploit your strengths in life.

          Now, if you get into the area where laws and/or mandates based on these propensities are passed, then that is a different story (however, there are many biased laws based on gender already).
    • Most people agree that there are male/female differences, it's whether those differences make you bad at science that's hotly disputed. It also matters that this person said this, because recruitment of female profs has declined sharply during his time in the post.

      My irritation with all these vagely socio-biological arguments is that they are almost always used to justify the status quo. For example, people used to say "men are natural hunters, women are natural home-makers and organisers, therefore it's

      • by John Harrison (223649) <johnharrison AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:41AM (#11394770) Homepage Journal
        Perhaps those differences simply make women approach science in a different way, and the current scientific culture having been established by men doesn't provide room for a different approach.

        My wife is a doctor, and I have read studies on the influence of women in medicine. The basic conclusion is that after the male dominated culture makes allowances for women's differences (by not forcing them to act as males) that having women as doctors not only improves care for the women's patients, but when working in teams seems to make the male doctors better doctors as well. The difficulty is the initial effort to overcome the medical culture that has been created by men.

        Basically being different doesn't mean better or worse on its own, but when different approaches work together you can get better results.

    • by corporatemutantninja (533295) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:31AM (#11394659)
      So let me get this straight...a guy suggests that maybe we shouldn't automatically conclude that gender differences in math/science might not be cultural and that perhaps we should shine the light of scientific inquiry on the problem, and a bunch of women go ballistic and don't want to challenge this sacred notion.

      (cough)

      Does anybody else see the irony here?

      • I think people are going ballistic because in that statement, he has assumed (as I note have you) that there are gender differences in maths/science - beyond the very obvious one that women tend not to take up maths/science, I don't actually know of any proof of differing abilities. His anecdotal demonstration, that his daughter is apparently able to make effective use of metaphor in choosing nomenclature, doesn't quite come up to scratch.

        The light of scientific inquiry has incidentally been shining on thi
        • by Omestes (471991) <{omestes} {at} {gmail.com}> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:41AM (#11395629) Homepage Journal
          Um, great. So we have a question, and he brought it up as such, even saying perhaps it needs more research. In my eyes that always seemed to be perfectly valid in science.

          But not if you get in the way of the rights groups. Then you must keep your mouth shut. Making people feel good about themselves is much better than inquiry.

          And, I pretty much ignore most gender/race science discoveries. They are bad science for the most part, with researchers bubbleing with good intentions, working towards a certain conclusion that they want. While I think those who find opposite from the groupthink perfer to remain quiet.

          Please not, I'm not racist/sexist. I just think that there is some truth in the fact that we are all diverse, and that certain groups might have propencities towards certain aptitudes. But thats to the flexible nature of humans, it might take more work, but we all can be equal, even if we aren't by default.

          In my experience, I've informally noticed that women don't seem as good at logical arguments as men, resorting to emotive statements instead of logical proofs. "I just feel that way!". One of my best freinds was really guilty of this. But over the years she took many philosophy and math classes, and now can pretty much kick my ass in the logic department. The fact is, Americans don't want to work to be equal, we just want to be by default.
    • by kaiidth (104315) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:44AM (#11394819)
      Well, studies have shown differences between men and women. This is no surprise. Studies have not on the other hand been particularly revealing as to whether it's down to nature or nurture. Of course, in the example of his good at maths/bad at maths one, it all comes down to the question that you ask.

      If you ask, "Are men better at maths than women?" you can show it to be true easily by showing the number of graduates of each sex - just as you can supposedly prove that white men can't jump by looking at basketball results. Are either of these results rigorous proof of the assertions? No. They just show that as of today, white men apparently less often jump and women less often take maths degrees.

      As a matter of pure interest, note the UK A-level results; girls outperform boys in science and maths on a regular basis at age 18, according to those.

      So one might say that really what this guy has done is asked, and answered, the wrong question, using a mixture of anecdotal evidence (that stupid story about his daughter's trucks; why is he so upset that she shows such a good grasp of metaphor?!) and what appears to be pure presumption.

      Can women do maths? immediately splits ability by gender, which is daft, seeing that gender is a pretty blurry line. Even the differences in language processing in the brain so popular for authors of self-help books are only true in a small set of circumstances, for a small proportion of the population; probably you could split by toenail length and get an intriguing correlation, too.

      You might find it interesting to read Beyond Binary Thinking [odu.edu], an interesting introduction to exactly this field.
  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Momoru (837801) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:09AM (#11394407) Homepage Journal
    Now we just need them to study why they are so bad at driving too! ;)
    • Re:Great! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kclittle (625128) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:17AM (#11394492)
      Actually, the Insurance industry has known for years exactly who the worst drivers are: males. Especially the young ones, filled with 10x more testosterone than brains...

      • Re:Great! (Score:5, Informative)

        by MartinG (52587) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:44AM (#11394820) Homepage Journal
        Depends what you mean by "worst drivers" ....

        (warning: the following is not backed up with links because I can't find the info right now, so mod me down if you want)

        .. In the UK, women drivers tend to make more insurance claims than men. Why then, you might ask, do man generally have to pay more for insurance? Well, its because when men make a claim it tends to be for a complete smash-up whereas women tend to reverse into lampposts.

        In summary, men have fewer, more serious accidents and women have more less serious ones.
        • Re:Great! (Score:4, Interesting)

          by gilroy (155262) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:07AM (#11395175) Homepage Journal
          Blockquoth the poster:

          In summary, men have fewer, more serious accidents and women have more less serious ones

          No. In summary, men tend to have more serious accidents. The other bit could easily be that women are more likely to file an insurance claim for a minor mishap. Maybe men figure they can fix or have someone else fix the problem. Maybe men feel more embarassment over having accidents and thus only file claims when there's no way they can pay for the repairs. Or of course maybe they really do have fewer minor accidents.
      • Re:Great! (Score:3, Funny)

        by AviLazar (741826)
        The reason men are so bad at driving is because they are distracted by women. Every time I almost got into an accident that would be my fault it was either because I was distracted by staring at some hot girl on the street, some girl in the back seat scared the living crap out of me by yelling, or the girl sitting next to me distracted me...well you know.

        :)
      • Re:Great! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by finkployd (12902) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:21AM (#11395361) Homepage
        In my short experience as a motorcyclist, I have learned to be much more wary of women and elderly drivers than any other demographic. No scientific study, no raw data to back this up, just my experience with close calls, ran stopsigns, sudden turns with no signals, and seeing who pays attention to the road and who doesn't.

        I have already been hit once by a soccer Mom in a minivan who decided a red light meant talk to her daughter in the passenger seat and do not watch where you are going. About a dozen or so close calls with this kind of situation have reinforced this view.

        Am I being sexist for thinking this way? Perhaps, but since all evidence I have gathered supports it, I will continue to asses situations this way when I am on the road. It has kept me out of some accidents so far.

        Finkployd
  • I'd be interested (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AEton (654737) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:09AM (#11394414)
    I'd be interested to see what peer-reviewed, repeatable research there exists on actual gender differences.

    I remember hearing in a developmental psych class that only 5-10% of the 'standard' gender differences have any biological basis; and the NY Times article on this topic quotes a woman who was angry because, if I remember right, the entire morning of the symposium had been spent dispelling those same myths.

    The trouble with this kind of research seems to be that there's too much political intrigue - every scientist is going to be accused of (or possess) some kind of bias in American gender-polarized society, and that is difficult to filter out even if you're aware of it.

    Maybe we should just move to Sweden.
    • Re:I'd be interested (Score:5, Informative)

      by pla (258480) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:09AM (#11395201) Journal
      I'd be interested to see what peer-reviewed, repeatable research there exists on actual gender differences.

      I lack links to peer reviewed studies (since most journals rightly fear that the internet will eventually drive them out of business) to back these up, but I can provide a few examples that a quick Googling will verify...

      1) Female brains weight roughly 200g less than male brains.

      2) Females use both hemispheres of their brains (five separate locii, IIRC) for language tasks, while males use only one hemisphere and (again, IIRC) two locii.

      3) Males perform significantly (in the rigid statistical sense) better at 3d spatial orientation tasks than females do.


      And, of course, the one that caused this entire argument, 4) Males score DRASTICALLY higher on tests of abstract and symbolic logic (ie, math). I don't even know why that counts as controvertial anymore. That particular horse died so long ago, we can't even beat the carcass, just sort of stir up the dust.
  • by mfifer (660491) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:09AM (#11394415)
    ... Math is hard [foresitecomputing.net] ;-)
  • by Illserve (56215) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:09AM (#11394416)
    If someone got up on stage and claimed that men were innately bad at having babies.

    It would be an ugly, ugly scene.

    • by Wordsmith (183749) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:24AM (#11394570) Homepage
      Hey, my father gave birth to a baby, and I'll be damned if he wasn't the best baby-maker I've ever seen. Of course, he had to work twice as hard at making babies to even earn a sliver of respect in the woman-dominated baby field. But after years of perseverence, the other baby makers came to think of him as "just one of the girls," ...
    • agreed, there are so many things that women are better at than men, but in our society they're all considered 'lesser' abilities. The ability to nurse a baby. To give birth to a baby. The ability to empathize better than men.

      all are very important traits that women defeat men at every day of every year. its a shame that these abilities are considered less important than physical strength and the ability to add two numbers together...
  • by Phillip2 (203612) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:10AM (#11394418)
    economists bad at genetics.

    Take your pick. I know which I think is more likely.

    Phil
  • by Gyan (6853) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:10AM (#11394422)
    Simon Baron-Cohen, a psych prof. at Cambridge has a book:

    The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain [amazon.com].

    From the beginning of the book: "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

    Has anyone read it?

    P.S. This guy is a cousin of Ali G. Don't know what that ought to signify :)
    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:16AM (#11394484) Journal
      Are empathy and `understanding systems' different? Surely empathy is simply a subset of `understanding systems' tiered towards the system known as the human brain.
      • by Medevo (526922) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:47AM (#11394859) Homepage
        This is implying "logical systems" such as a truss network on a bridge (lego) or a simple chemical reaction (baking soda + acid). Both of these things have the advantage that they both are visual (you can see the bridge, or the result of the reaction) and are easily repeated (for friends say, the good old cool factor). Young males (or all males in general) tend to be much less proficient at the less logical and more random nature of human interaction. People often don't say or do what they mean (little boy picking on a girl, doesn't quite understand the feelings he is having yet, but this is his best system of expression), results are rarely repeatable and even harder to predict.

        I would say that our study of math is, in many ways, just a expression of this male-ness. We wish to explain everything in terms of equations and systems because they are usually predictable with great numerical accuracy (say with electric charges, we can easily predict the force between different charges, even if we don't quite understand totally how and why electric fields function) and are typically repeatable with similar results (definition of experiment anyone?).

        The human brain may be a system, but understanding some parts of this system is simply not innate (it can be taught though). At the same time, weakness in math by girls may simply be that the entire system was derived and devised by men, with that type of thinking involved. I must say that, while I am fairly good at math (male), there are plenty girls in my engineering classes that are much better at math then I am. however, if you looked at any of my high school classes, only 1 (out of 20 or so) girls were better at math then I. It all depends on your sample really.

        Medevo
  • by leoc (4746) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:11AM (#11394426) Homepage
    Being an economist, he wouldn't even know what real science is. What he practices is a pseudo-science, at best.
    • Actually, since economics is really a form of psychology/sociology, an economist might not be a bad authority on saying "some differences in gender are not social like people think they are (i.e., if someone did a study to test correlation, causation, or whatever); if they are not social then there must be some other determining characteristic. Since there is a difference based on gender lines, one might reasonably argue that difference is genetic and therefore 'innate'."
  • Or maybe (Score:5, Insightful)

    by theparanoidcynic (705438) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:11AM (#11394435)
    It's because women don't stay in the technical fields due to the sexist and condecending culture found there.
    • Give it a rest (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ShatteredDream (636520) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:31AM (#11394658) Homepage
      Girls are so pampered today by our public education system that most of them are terribly thin-skinned. One of the girls in my CS program used to go into a crying temper tantrum everytime someone more than very, very gently criticized something she said or did. Most of the guys I see are supportive of the girls.

      Here's a novel idea though. If you want a man to respect you as a colleague, ladies, then do a man's work and do it LIKE a man. That means you meet or exceed the level of work that a man would in your position. No excuses ladies, just fucking take it like a man.

      The girls that I know who make it do that. They don't make excuses, they just compete. They don't whine about sexism, in fact the most successful of them as a "bring it on, fuckers" attitude toward sexism.
      • Re:Give it a rest (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Zelet (515452)
        I would have to completely agree with this. My wife finsihed her BS, and MS in 5 years in Biological Systems Engineering and Industrial engineering with an emphasis in Human factors engineering.

        She got a great job and her attitude is I'll treat you like a man if you treat me like a man. It has worked out perfectly. She works with a bunch of ex-sailors and she is as rough as they are.
      • Re:Give it a rest (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ChibiOne (716763) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @01:46PM (#11397351)
        Last I checked, nowhere is it stated that developing an architecture, solving an equation, disovering a new species, developing a vaccine or generating a nuclear reaction was a "male only" thing.

        People, both male and female, should cut the crap and just act like engineers, chemists, biologists... like PROFESSIONALS.

  • by Machine9 (627913) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:12AM (#11394436) Homepage
    ...this is obviously a flamewar waiting to happen. Or it would be if slashdot wasn't mostly male ;p

    I just wanted to chime in by saying that "have less aptitude for" does not automatically mean "all suck at".

  • by discontinuity (792010) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:12AM (#11394441)

    The NYTimes has been running this story on their main page for the past day. Story is here [nytimes.com].

    Apparently, he made these remarks in an effort to provoke discussion more than to express his beliefs. Or at least that's the spin on it.

  • Hmm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by It doesn't come easy (695416) * on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:12AM (#11394443) Journal
    Husband: "Sweetheart, be careful you don't overdraw the account again..."

    Wife: "Honey, you know women are bad at math..."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:12AM (#11394444)
    I'm sure the female slashdot member will be upset by such a statement.

  • by Meostro (788797) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:14AM (#11394467) Homepage Journal
    Men and women are different. Whoda Thunk!?!

    He just said the right thing the wrong way... he was apparently trying to "be provocative" according to the same AP article [cnn.com] on CNN.

    He also gave an example of what he intended (emphasis mine):
    "It's possible I made some reference to innate differences," he said. He said people "would prefer to believe" that the differences in performance between the sexes are due to social factors, "but these are things that need to be studied."

    He also cited as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral upbringing. Yet he said she named them "daddy truck" and "baby truck," as if they were dolls.

    That example says "innate difference" to me, but I'd like to see more detail.
    • by Xentax (201517) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:26AM (#11394588)
      That "Example" is a shining example of why *anecdotal data is misleading*. Who knows what sort of other details or context might apply to such a story?

      Based on TFA (I know, I know), I'd have to say the guy really is a pompous jerk who wants to believe his sexism has some actual merit, and will find ways to prop up his beliefs. It's something we all do to some extent (just recall the conversation you have with yourself when you're sleeping for 10 more minutes instead of getting up when the alarm goes off), but it has no place in public/professional comments in any academic setting.

      Yes, it's true that it is AWFULLY hard to separate nature vs. nurture when it comes to behavior, preference, and aptitude across large groups. But to suggest there 'might be innate differences' (which is the best possible way you could put it) without referring to any existing studies to that effect is just wrongheaded. And again, it comes down to first having to show there IS a difference, and then having to show that it's tied to gender as opposed to childhood development. GFL.

      Xentax
    • by tehanu (682528) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:38AM (#11394723)
      Well I'm a female and when I was a young girl I found dolls to be extremely boring. When someone gave me trucks I did what every other kid around me did - bang them into each other and pretend that they are fighting. Then again, I did grow up with two brothers and 90% of the neighbourhood kids were boys...I even tried to be a "proper" girl and bought myself a Barbie doll (with a pink dress) but it was hopeless. It was so boooring. I had much more fun playing with my brother's Lion Voltron action figures. I was still a typical girl though. I liked dressing up. I read girl magazines and trashy romance novels.

      On the other hand my male cousin despite being pretty macho and a typical gamer dude, loves cooking, sewing, knitting and crocheting and has since he was very young (while I hated these things). He used to force my uncle and aunt to teach him these things and while he *hated* to read borrowed cooking and sewing books (of his own violation) from the library. Oh, and he's studying comp sci as well and no he's NOT gay.

      Anyway, anedoctal evidence you say? Well, so is the Harvard guy's evidence as well.

      How about we are all individuals? While there may be some difference between males and females, I suspect the overlap between male and female brains is much much larger.
    • He also cited as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral upbringing. Yet he said she named them "daddy truck" and "baby truck," as if they were dolls.

      That example says "innate difference" to me, but I'd like to see more detail.

      OK, here's some more detail. My three-year-old son does the exact same freaking thing. He also happens to be very bright on the math/techie side, although that is totally irrelevant.

      Obviously, this brilliant economist

  • Variability (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JJ (29711) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:17AM (#11394496) Homepage Journal
    Statistically, he is correct, women on avergae do worse in math. It's the variability that shoots him down though. Individual women can and do excell in math. Just as there are both male and female math illiterates, there are female and male math geniuses.

  • Book recommendation (Score:5, Informative)

    by vondo (303621) * on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:20AM (#11394527)
    For anyone interested in reading about the differences in the way the male and female minds work, there is a very interesting book: The First Sex : The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World [amazon.com] by Helen Fisher.

    Her basic premise (backed up by various studies) is that pre-historically, the tasks of men and women drove the evolution of their brains and chemistry (hormones). For example, because men did the hunting, they had to understand spacial relationships better. Because a group of women in a tribe took care of the children together, women had to work better with others and multi-task.

    I can't recall specifically, but I think she makes the point that the male mind is (on average, of course) better suited for engineering because of the spacial relationship thing. But, her basic premise is that the directions the world, and even corporate culture, are heading benefit women and we should expect them to lead much more in the future.

    • by MrWa (144753)
      I can't recall specifically, but I think she makes the point that the male mind is (on average, of course) better suited for engineering because of the spacial relationship thing. But, her basic premise is that the directions the world, and even corporate culture, are heading benefit women and we should expect them to lead much more in the future.

      So, it is okay for her to say that males are - on average - better at engineering due to evolution, as long as she qualifies that by saying that women are better

  • Total bullshit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tehanu (682528) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:25AM (#11394581)
    Here's an interesting thing. I am a female physics PhD student. What I noticed in my university and from discussions with other PhD students and scientists, this is fairly common in other universities, is that the ratio of female to male students, in physics and maths at least is about 50/50 through undergraduate. And they do well in it. They get As and first-class honours. The most obvious exception to this is engineering. That's still very male dominated. But as you start going up to PhD level and then further you start losing girls. However the situation today is still much better than in the past. As you look at the older scientists in your department you will generally see that as the age goes up, the more likely that they are male.

    This is Australia, so maybe things are different in the US. But what I understand talking with other scientists (including male ones) is that first of all the PhD itself is a slog. Secondly after you finish you go through a long period where you get 1-2 year postdocs here and there and you are likely to be constantly moving. It is much easier for a guy to tell his wife that they are moving and that she should quit her job and pack and for the guy to spend years working late at night and expecting his wife to hold the fort at home with the kids and housework than for a woman to do the same thing. Also then you want to have a baby and you have to take at least a year off, sometimes even more, and well you can see how things go. Oh, and also as my (male) supervisor once warned me, some of the older guys are just biased against women. They won't say it outright but it affects how they select people for jobs.
  • by DrDebug (10230) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:38AM (#11394730) Journal
    I am an instructor at a technical college; my specialties are programming, networking, and UNIX. We teach a 2-year degree.

    I have found that the ratio of females/males in the UNIX class is about 40/60. In programming, about 45/55. But in networking (we teach the CCNA cirriculum) the first semester starts at about 40/60 but ends up about 10/90 by the fourth term. The women just drop out.

    I believe anyone can discipline their minds to do just about anything. But I also believe females are wired differently than males. This is not to say that females are worse (or better) than males; just different. Males seem to want to tackle problems, while females watch and observe and learn. Perhaps it is the curriculum that is oriented for the male student, Idunno.

  • by guidryp (702488) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:39AM (#11394744)
    It is obvious that men and women in general have different brain development and a different way of looking at the world.

    But in our politically correct culture it seems that it is only ok to highlight the differences that paint men in a negative light and women in a positive light.

    So there is no uproar to say that men are more prone to violence or women or more nurturing.

    But saying men are better suited to understanding spacial relationships. That would be a no-no....
  • by erroneus (253617) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:41AM (#11394767) Homepage
    They rarely coincide.

    I think it has been long established that unless other factors play into it, women are driven by different drives than men. I don't pretend to understand whether it's a cultural matter or a genetic one, but there are a variety of biological reasons for women to be less capable of maintaining abilities in math and logic (which are devoid of emotion). Women have a lot of games that their bodies, for better or worse, play on them that men do not suffer or experience.

    Now I have seen other studies among toddlers showing that on the large, boys are more successful at getting around obstacles (read as stubborn if it helps you to think so) than the girls who were prone to simply giving up in frustration. The notion is that as a toddler, there is less chance of a child being tainted by learned roles and behavior although there will still be some of that.

    But frankly, I am a little annoyed when studies are criticised for reasons that have little to nothing to do with evidence to the contrary and more about a conflict of opinion or ideals. We don't want to hear that men and women are not equals -- that would mean all sorts of problems in our future because after all, look how far we've come by legislating that women are equal to men:

    We have an unprecedented number of single-parent families and all of the dysfunctional children that accompany those numbers. We have an unprecedented divorce rate that never stops climbing. (Studies have shown that 80% of all marriages start where men ask the women, but it is in the 90% range where women initiate divorce.) Women in the workplace are supposed to be equal but statistically, they spend less time at work than men do for the same job.

    Before women start bashing me on this because it doesn't fit "you" or some smaller group of people -- this is about the country of the U.S. at large. And if you think there aren't cases to the opposite, it would be wrong for me not to acknowledge it.... so here's your bone. I read in a black woman's magazine about some refreshing statistics that the decline of black single mothers collecting welfare is increasing at an almost unexplainable rate. They are becoming far more educated than their white counterparts, and are earning more money than their black male counterparts. I can only attribute that to cultural adjustments within those circles but it does illustrate an important point I'd like to close with.

    Natural ability or talent alone do not determine potential for success or limitations. There are thousands of other factors that can come into play when determining these things which can even include the direction of the wind at the moment of determination. So then what would be the purpose of such studies?

    It's about understanding ourselves; who we are -- our strengths and our weaknesses. And the sooner we embrace whatever the "facts du jour" are, the sooner we can begin from a proper perspective rather than the basis of some political agenda.
    • look how far we've come by legislating that women are equal to men: We have an unprecedented number of single-parent families and all of the dysfunctional children that accompany those numbers. We have an unprecedented divorce rate that never stops climbing. (Studies have shown that 80% of all marriages start where men ask the women, but it is in the 90% range where women initiate divorce.)

      Yes, and there you haven't even touched the subject of what happens after that divorce; the woman gets away with the kids and your money. Hell, I know men where the woman, right after they decided to divorce, robbed the entire house clean of all their mutual belongings (with the help of friends), in addition to taking a way too large lump of his future income, and taking all his rights away to see his kids. Judges won't punish this sort of outright criminal behaviour and the woman's part, undoubtedly for a variety of reasons, but justice is not one of them. Feminism is, I suspect. There's a reason for the fact that organisations like Fathers for Justice exist. This happens in Europe, mind you!

      Feminism destroyed America, the whole western world for that matter. And still there are people (the variery that needs to sit down to pee, that is) claiming that feminism hasn't come far enough yet. Excuse me?! What do they want men to be? Men are more than a monthly income, and a means for women to be able to shit out these godawful screaming shitting smelling monsters they call babies!

      On the other hand, there is a difference between what women say (or think) they want, and what they actually want; they claim that they want men and women to be equal, and that they want a man with feminine qualities. Bullshit! What they want, is a man; someone who has the traditional male qualities like confidence, and not being afraid to set limits, etc. Until women see the flaw in their own logic here, the divorce rate will not get better. On the other hand, once you understand this as a man, it's time to get a woman that doesn't think in such a feministic way. Really, they exist :)

  • by CAIMLAS (41445) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:48AM (#11394876) Homepage
    Not his personal views, my ass.

    It's all in the phrasing of the slur.

    If I were to say, "Some black men are criminals," it'd be one thing; were I to say, "black men are criminals" it's another thing entirely.

    Same goes for this situation. If I say, "Women are bad at math," it implies that I think they're all inferior logically to all men. It's entirely different than saying, "A statistical sampling of women shows that they are, on average, bad at math compared to a similar sampling of men." Now, while I'm not bad at mathematics myself, my wife is likely better - or at least enjoys it more - and I'm not too shabby on the topic myself, "on the average".

    Aside from the fact that the absolute word "bad" is used, it's just a poor choice of language for a supposedly-educated man. Either that, or he said what he'd initially intended, it was taken in context, and he's a sexist. It wouldn't surprise me.
  • by guacamolefoo (577448) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:04AM (#11395123) Homepage Journal
    Women's advocacy groups pick and choose sex differences to be outraged over:

    Women:

    1. live longer
    2. are less likely to be victimized by violent crime
    3. are less likely to be killed in war
    4. are less likely to suffer birth defects
    5. are less likely to go to jail
    6. are less likely to be substance abusers (alcohol, smoking, illegal drugs)
    7. are more likely to go to, and complete, college
    8. are less likely to be high-school drop-outs

    Raise the possibility that some things that women are not as good at, such as abstract reasoning, however, and you'll be slaughtered in public.

    GF

  • by m0llusk (789903) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:13AM (#11395246) Journal

    What was actually said involved a lot of disclaimers and careful language. Summerizing the remarks as "females naturally bad at math" is just plain wrong.

    One of the specific things he pointed out was the way that the work of high level math and science contributors in academia is organized requires a steep committment in time and effort that many women are unwilling to spend. In the corporate world positions have been modified to allow for multiple people to hold onto an important responsibility. There are other kinds of changes that can also be made. Part of the implication here is that the flaws are not with the women who are not reaching the top in these contexts, but with the way the offices and responsibilities themselves are structured and executed.

    There is a popular article in the New York Times about this with the title "Harvard Chief Defends His Talk On Women" that goes into significant detail.
  • by GeneralEmergency (240687) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:13AM (#11395253) Journal


    According to the BBC [bbc.co.uk], The difference in male vs. female brain size (about 10%) in humans and higher order primates is directly attributable to in increase is the size of the areas of the brain responsible for geo-spatial mapping and visualization. Natural selection is the culprit in this instance. It seems that if you couldn't find your way home after the day's hunt, you got less of an opportunity to pass on your genes!

    When you think about it, (and be honest now) in your experience, exactly what is the ratio of male to female Unix admins?

    Got 'cha!

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